There has been plenty of talk of an economic recession, but the under-the-radar recession no one is talking about has to do with our relationships. In our post-COVID society, we might think isolation is in the rearview. And with practically unlimited access to people and information at our fingertips, we might also think that connection is easier than ever — but surveys show that there are a lot of lonely people out there.
We spoke with licensed therapist and friendship educator Blake Blankenbecler of Fig Holistic Psychotherapy in Charleston, SC, to learn about the current crisis of friendship, how to make new friends as an adult, how to show up as a good friend, and even tips for knowing when it’s time to walk away from a friendship that isn’t working.
What led you to the specific expertise of friendship?
I’ve had successful practices in Nashville, Los Angeles, Austin, and now Charleston, so I’ve gotten to work with people all over the country and become acquainted with the struggles of being human. Out of my work emerged a desire to study some of the most foundational relationships that hardly get any time in the spotlight: our friendships.
Because I’ve moved around a lot as an adult, that forced me to pay attention to friendships — how to make new ones, sustain existing ones, and examine friendships that were no longer working. All of this while also working as a therapist. And I can tell you, from coast to coast, folks are talking about their friendships … there is pain and hurt often tangled into these beautiful and complicated relationships.
I’m glad that research is finally catching up. The people in our inner circle actually have a profound influence on our mental health and well-being. Knowing this, it would be wise for all of us to pay more attention to cultivating deeper and richer friendships.
Can you explain the concept of a “friendship recession”?
The friendship recession is the reality that we are spending less time with friends than ever before. We’ve all seen the memes that joke about adult friendships — scheduling time together months in advance because you’re both so busy. While the intentions are good, the implications of not seeing each other regularly can be harmful.
Face-to-face interactions are what foster and sustain friendships. Without that, it’s easy to fall into this space of feeling bad that you haven’t reached out, so you continue to not reach out because it’s been too long — and suddenly, you haven’t talked to your friend in two years. So it makes sense that levels of loneliness and depression are also at an all-time high. We are social creatures that need to be in relationships to thrive.
A lot of us don’t have great friendship habits. That’s partly on us and partly on the structure of western society, which values overworking and overextending yourself to the point that you don’t have any energy left to be social. Cultivating friendships takes conscious effort, and we would all benefit from making it a priority.
With technology and social media, we’re more connected than ever. Yet, for some, making real and lasting connections has never been more elusive. What’s your take on that?
The sense of connection you are or are not getting through social media is largely based on how you’re using social media. The first question I often ask is, “Is your feed making you feel better or worse about yourself?” If your answer is the latter, it’s time to do some intentional unfollowing or muting of anyone that rears up those feelings of insecurity, jealousy, or comparison. Then, work on curating a feed that feels more hopeful and inspiring.
It’s really helpful if you use social media as another arm of connection with your friends. See a funny meme or Reel that reminds you of what you and your friend were just talking about on the phone the other week? Send it their way! Did your friend post something about a new project they are starting? Comment on their post and hype them up!
Making new friends as an adult can be difficult, especially if you don’t have school-aged kids in the house. What strategies do you recommend?
Making new friends as an adult is hard, and it’s not something that many of us were prepared for. Up until college, you’re surrounded by your peers and largely on the same track, which makes making and maintaining friendships a lot easier. It’s usually after college that paths start to diverge, with some folks getting married and having kids, others moving away or pursuing their careers, and some doing all the above. The ease of friendships dissipates. I talk to a lot of people in their late 20s and 30s who realize they don’t actually know how to make new friends, and they are having to be much more thoughtful and conscious about the process.
A few strategies I often suggest are: first, have a mindset that making great friends takes work and thoughtfulness. It means putting yourself out there, and that might feel awkward and uncomfortable — which means you’re probably doing it right and taking some risks. Showing up to groups or spaces that already interest you, like pottery classes, tennis lessons, volunteering, or joining a book club, sets you up for success because you know you already have something in common.
Making good friends is one thing. What are your essential rules for being a good friend?
Working on being a good friend is a huge part of my friendship work because it’s often overlooked in lieu of finding and making better friendships. But if you want better friendships, you also have to spend time looking at your own strengths and your tender spots as a friend. A great way to start doing this is by asking your friends for feedback about what’s working and not working in your friendship.
By creating space to say something like, “I feel so cared for by you when you send me a handwritten note or call to check in after a hard meeting with my boss,” you can let your friends know what’s really helpful — and they can let you know when they feel cared for by you, too.
But, being open to hearing the harder feedback and being willing to work through it together is a key tenet in healthy friendships. For example, when a friend tells you that you hurt their feelings because of something you did or didn’t say, being a good friend is choosing to be curious about what that was like for them and what they needed from you in that moment instead of getting defensive.
From what you see in your work, what are the most common roadblocks to healthy adult friendships?
One of the biggest roadblocks to healthy friendships is believing that you can be a great friend to everyone, and that simply isn’t the case. Research shows that while we can have up to 150 meaningful relationships (which is a ton), it’s the five people we are closest to that have the most impact on our lives. Knowing who your inner circle is and making sure they get your best friendship energy is so important.
Another roadblock is the myth that if you’re really good friends with someone, that means that there shouldn’t be any conflict. Conflict does not have to be a bad thing, especially if you and your friends are committed to being honest with each other and repairing what’s been hurt. Not talking about the hard things to avoid hurting your friend has far more damaging effects than having the hard conversation and working through the pain. A mentor of mine always used to say, “Conflict dealt with correctly breeds intimacy.” I’ve seen this to be true time and time again in healthy friendships.
This is a tough one. What are some telltale signs that it’s time to take a step back from a friendship or end it altogether?
The reality that some friendships are not forever can be hard to accept. In my therapeutic work, I focus a lot on what’s happening within your body and learning how to listen to the cues within. For example, noticing what happens in your body before, during, and after hanging out with a particular friend can give you so much wisdom.
Is your body constricted? Do you feel nervous and clammy around them? Do you feel like you can’t be yourself or have to hide parts of yourself? After you leave, do you worry about what you said and how it might be interpreted? These are all cues that it might be time to assess the health of the friendship.
Or does your body feel really excited or at peace with this friend? These are cues that this is likely a friendship where you and your body feel safe to show up authentically.
Sometimes we grow apart because of different life stages and a natural ending without any animosity. Other times, it’s a conscious choice to end a friendship because of unhealthy patterns at play — disrespecting boundaries, unhealthy power dynamics, and opinions or needs being constantly devalued or ignored. These decisions often take a lot of time and are painful to deal with. Be gentle with yourself as you grieve the loss of your friendship, and work on focusing on friendships where you feel safe in your body and comfortable being fully yourself!
You’ve used your expertise to create a tangible tool for building stronger friendships. Tell us about the Friendship Deck!
The Friendship Deck is a conversation game for friends who are craving more depth and intimacy with each other. When this idea started blooming, we were coming out of the pandemic, and so many of us felt disconnected in our friendships and relationships after being apart for so long. I wanted to create something tangible that folks could easily bring into their friend groups to begin having meaningful and curious conversations that helped to strengthen their friendships and allow them to show up more authentically.
It’s thoughtfully designed with 62 different questions within three levels to help ease you and your friends into the waters of emotional depth. Building intimacy within your friendship takes time and trust; I wanted the deck to reflect that. It’s a playful and fun resource that opens doors. It fosters that sense of belonging we all need these days!
What are some of your favorite sources of inspiration on this topic?
I’m always looking for inspiration where friendship is expressed as dynamic, robust, and layered because if you’ve been in any friendship long enough, you know that friendships evolve and are not one-note. We are finally starting to see more books and shows that put friendship in the spotlight and no longer housing it as a supporting role.
- Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman has been a well-loved resource for years.
- Recently I read B.F.F. by Christie Tate and can’t recommend that book more, especially if you’re someone who struggles with friendship.
- Platonic by Marisa Franco is also a great read if you are interested in how your attachment style shows up in your friendships.
- I’m also a big fan of TV shows centering on friendship! PEN15 on Hulu is an incredible watch about two girls in middle school in the early 2000s. If you’re a millennial, you will appreciate the walk down memory lane replete with Trapper Keepers, overly plucked eyebrows, and braces to trigger some of your middle school friendship memories.
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